Vt. lawmakers at standstill over hazard pay for essential workers

Published: May. 26, 2020 at 5:06 PM EDT
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Vermont lawmakers are at a standstill on a bill that would give hazard pay to essential front-line workers. The aim is to have that money come from the $1.25 billion CARES Act, but some lawmakers aren't so sure. Our Calvin Cutler examines what's holding up the bill.

Branden King works at the Moretown General Store. When the pandemic broke out, the store's parent company, Jolly, gave him an extra $5 an hour in hazard pay.

"It's been really helpful, actually, a good incentive to come to work even though we're exposing ourselves to this," King said.

Vermont lawmakers are working on a similar proposal which would give hazard pay benefits to 33,000 essential workers. The bill breezed through the Senate but stalled in the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee. Leaders say if the federal government determines the state misused the money, they can take the money back, making the state foot a $60 million price tag.

"Making sure that the federal government isn't going to come back to us and say we want that money back because you didn't use it properly," said Rep. Michael Marcotte, R-Orleans.

Federal guidance says CARES Act funding can be used for hazard pay but it has to be what's defined as necessary. Since it's been over two months since the COVID crisis broke out, Marcotte says retroactive payments can be interpreted as bonuses, not hazard pay.

"The federal government could come in and say it's not necessary because people stayed working. They didn't quit their jobs to get on unemployment," Marcotte said.

But other lawmakers disagree.

"It is a moral question of whether we are going to go through this whole experience and basically ride the backs of these front-line workers and they have nothing to show for it except for a few thank-you's which were given back in March," said Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-President Pro Tem.

Ashe says the benefits for front-line workers is long overdue. He also says the Legislature's nonpartisan Joint Fiscal Office and the U.S. Treasury believe the grant program will be eligible.

"So while there's no 100-percent guarantee that this hazard pay grant program will be guaranteed to be eligible, that's no less true than the other proposed uses of the CARES funds," Ashe said.

But until more clarity comes from the feds, a path forward for the bill is unclear.

Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, has also said he's concerned about where the money would come from.

Lawmakers and the administration only have until Dec. 31 to spend all of the $1.25 billion of the CARES Act. Lawmakers say they want clarification long before then.

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